The creation of the trans-oceanic canal came at a heavy price for Panama with thousands of workers dying, and the US-controlled Canal Zone generating an apartheid atmosphere that sparked deep unrest
When Vasco Nuez de Balboa crossed the Panama isthmus on foot in 1513, he had little intention of becoming the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean. But his trek revealed Panamas strategic location to be a treasure as great as any of the plunder brought home by other conquistadors for the Spanish crown.
After Balboas discovery, it didnt take long for Spains royal court to imagine a canal crossing through Panama. Unfortunately, given the technology of the time, building it was all but impossible. In the 1500s, when Spains King Charles I ordered officials in Panama to study the construction of a new canal there, one replied, There is not a prince in the world with the power to accomplish this.
It was nevertheless an important overland route for centuries to come and when an American consortium finally succeeded in building a railroad through Panamas dense jungle in 1855, the line proved immensely popular. Many locals, however, werent happy: a year after it opened, riots broke out between some Panamanians and the trains passengers.
There were international tensions, too. Emboldened by the expansionist beliefs of president Theodore Roosevelt, US officials amplified the rift between Panama and Colombia so that when negotiations with Columbia broke down, the US government successfully backed insurgent Panamanians, allowing them to win their independence. In return, America was given the right to build a canal across the country. The centuries-long dream of a trans-oceanic link would finally be fulfilled.